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Posted: March 26, 2009
Fraunhofer - 60 years of working for the future
(Nanowerk News) Founded in Munich in 1949, the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft evolved from a challenging into the largest organization for applied research in Europe. With its unique model of performance-based financing, it has become a role model for contract research, and is in demand around the world. As the driving force for innovation, today it plays a central role in the German and European innovation system.
60 years ago, on March 26, 1949, the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft was founded in the large conference hall of the Bavarian Ministry of the Economy. At the time, the idea was to develop new structures for research after the war's destruction, and to spur reconstruction of the economy.
The job of giving the people in Germany a future has not lost any of its importance since then. On the contrary: “Today, in the most serious economic crisis since 1929, the point, as in the past, is to adjust swiftly and consistently to the changed framework conditions, and to develop new perspectives with innovative products and methods,” emphasizes Prof. Hans-Jörg Bullinger, President of the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft. “Many companies are targeting investments in research and development, in spite of the financial crisis, and are adhering to the work with the Fraunhofer institutes. The type of contracts has changed, however. Businesses want marketable solutions very rapidly, because they know that in the next economic cycle, when the economy picks up again, the companies that prepare now will be the ones to enjoy the greatest success.”
Since it was founded, the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft has also steadily changed and adapted to new conditions. In six decades, Fraunhofer evolved from a small association with only three employees to the leading organization for applied research in Europe. After the difficulties of the early years when financial resources were persistently tight, the breakthrough came in the 1970s through institutional funding from the federal and Land governments. This era saw the creation of the performance-based financing model, which allows successful institutes to grow, while also decreeing the reduction of those that are not successful. This restructuring, with a clear economic orientation, triggered rapid growth, which continues even today. For example, in 2008, the number of institutes increased to 57, the number of employees to 15,000 and the research volume to 1.4 billion euros.
This amazing development was possible only because Fraunhofer made its ability to change, born out of need, into a virtue, and adapted with tremendous skill to new conditions. Flexible and adaptable like no other research organization, during its 60 years of history it has consistently learned to react to new challenges and to courageously seize opportunities. The rule for both companies and organizations is: Either modernize or become obsolete. “The Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft remains ‘young’ because it constantly modernizes its structures and focuses on the steady stream of young, motivated employees from universities and colleges. Our scientists' creativity and drive, combined with the clear market orientation and the principle of rewarding success, are the secret behind Fraunhofer's continuing momentum,” remarks President Bullinger with regard to the factors behind Fraunhofer's success.
In her greeting, the Federal Minister of Education and Research, Prof. Dr. Annette Schavan, also emphasizes the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft’s clear profile. “The Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft has a clearly defined and unique position in the German research community, and it executes its mandate with verifiable success. It is a highly coveted expert partner for science, industry, politics, and society. When I am asked what makes the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft so unique, the first thing that comes to mind is the institute's competition. This means the internal competition for resources for initial research and also the competition externally in order to attract additional project funds and assignments from industry. This Fraunhofer model has proven satisfactory in both weak and strong economic times.”
As Bavarian Prime Minister Horst Seehofer puts it, “Just the invention of the MP3 player as an especially popular example shows how important the impetus from the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, with its institutes and working groups, is for our country. The Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft is a guaranty for innovation and economic growth. For 60 years, it has been directly at the interface between basic research and application in industry. It ensures the rapid transfer of know-how between science and industry, brings inventions and knowledge from research and science to the point where they are ready for application, and drives the momentum from the field into its research. And so the ideas lead to new products and innovations for the future. The Fraunhofer institutes and working groups are technological think tanks that we in high-tech Bavaria will focus on even in the future.”
That Fraunhofer is still in such excellent condition on its 60th birthday must be credited to its employees. “They are our most important asset. They combine knowledge and ability, scientific excellence with field experience and market orientation”, is how Bullinger describes the important characteristics of the Fraunhofer scientists. “Our executive personnel must perfectly master the balancing act between research and the industrial word, and even entrepreneurial thinking such as that of our namesake and role model, Joseph von Fraunhofer”, Bullinger continues. “Thinking ahead and reacting quickly are typical qualities of the Fraunhofer institutes. We measure ourselves on the basis of market success, and so we must know what tomorrow's customers expect of us. We are used to recognizing signals in good time, analyzing interactions, and developing strategies for action. This crisis will give us an even better opportunity to see just how much we need these characteristics.” Instead of easing up, continuing to research where others long ago gave up. Searching for solutions where others say, “It can't be done.” This is part of the principle behind Fraunhofer. “Even today, it is courageous and extremely risky to offer applied research in a market that is changing more and more rapidly," President Bulling stresses. “But we trust our ability to solve even unforeseen problems. Which is why, in the future, we will still be able to say at the end of each project, 'Of course it can be done!'" ”
And to ensure that it continues to be so, Fraunhofer is selectively investing in topics of the future, and is systematically expanding its key technologies. In recent years, the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft introduced a comprehensive strategy process and grouped the competencies through networking to significantly increase its ability to respond. It has strengthened its focus on economically relevant future markets with the twelve topics of the future, and the establishment of 18 regional innovation clusters.
The advanced networking of the institutes allows the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft to take on interdisciplinary topics, such as electric mobility, very quickly because all important competencies can be swiftly brought together from the 18 institutes. “Not only have we learned to draw on the broad-based competencies in the Fraunhofer network, we have also learned how to link them flexibly and effectively,” Bullinger comments on the optimal utilization of the existing potential. The rigorous ongoing development of the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft into the driving force behind innovation is also expressed in its modernized image, which places the umbrella brand “Fraunhofer” in the foreground.
Even though Fraunhofer itself is still relatively unaffected by the current crisis and the order situation at the institutes is still as good as in the past, it troubles us to see how dramatically many segments are collapsing and how long-term customers are landing in turmoil. Because of its export orientation, Germany is especially severely affected by the global recession. According to Bullinger, “Those companies that are faster and more thorough at coming to terms with the changed conditions, and so those companies that are more innovative, will be the ones to emerge from the crisis strengthened. We will remain a reliable partner for our customers during this time.” The German federal government has taken important steps with its Economy Packages I and II. The Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft was granted funds of 65 million euros in Program I for numerous investments with which the German economy can be supported quickly and sustainably. Economy Program II provides considerable funds for the current topic of electric mobility, with which Fraunhofer can also strengthen its research activities in this area.
Using innovations to end the crisis - this is the only practicable way for Germany. And this is just as true now as it was 60 years ago when the modern industrial society emerged. “Without creativity, staying power, and confidence in our own abilities, however, reorganization will not succeed even today,” Bullinger says. “We are taking on responsibility, and, just like 60 years ago, we are committed to doing our job: strengthening Germany as an industrial location, and ensuring the future by means of innovation.”